Towards a Substantialist Materialism

We must nevertheless distinguish between two different uses of the term “libido” … libido as an energetic concept, regulating the equivalence of phenomena, and libido as a substantialist hypothesis, relating the phenomena to matter.

I refer to the hypothesis as substantialist, and not as materialist, because recourse to the idea of matter is but a naïve, outmoded form of authentic materialism.

Jacques Lacan. “Beyond the ‘Reality Principle.'” Écrits (2002).

There is a reason I employ the phrase ’empty matter’ as the name of this project, and this quote serves as one of the many interlaced influences I draw from.

What Lacan is getting at here is the Freudian distinction between libido as a virtual measure of the mental energies of a subject and libido as the explanative link between these mental energies and the biological redirection that occurs in the body when these energies are followed. Libido today is often referred to as one’s ‘sex drive,’ and this is no wonder considering that the evolution of the term begins with Freud’s broad categorization of libido as the dynamic force behind one’s desires (which in psychoanalytic thinking all find a ‘sexual’ basis, but this is a discussion for another time, qua Zupančič). To bring the term back to its clinical distinction, ‘libido’ is the capacity of the subject to respond to phenomena within their own register of desire, both on a psychical level of triggering a mental response and on a material level of engaging with the subject’s biological functions and the object of desire in external reality in order to realize this response.

This, much like Dr. Evil’s in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is a simplistic and somewhat misleading break-down of the term. Lacan’s point in claiming the ‘libido as a substantialist hypothesis’ is to get at the interconnected relationship between the mental and the material, and how in engaging in the phenomena of one, a subject necessarily invokes the other in order to access it. In this sense, libido is not so much a virtual measure on the one hand and an external explanation on the other but a virtually external point of contact with the signifying apparatus that a subject engages in when forming and following desires. This is not to confound the two aspects of the term Lacan distinguishes between, but rather to explain how the concept of libido as an internal process is deeply entangled with libido as a marker of one’s organization of outside reality. For Lacan, libido is “the very condition of symbolic identification and the essential entity of the rational order” (73). Sexuality aside, the simple act of stating “I desire x” is not comprised of independently gathering enough psychic energy to set forth on a desire and then finding an external object on which to focus this energy, but rather of the internal symbolic registration that occurs in the recognition of the external object and how this signification relates to the system of meaning that a subject possesses when forming this desire. ‘Libidinal energy’ in this sense may be more accurately described as the signifying chain’s ability to provide a symbolism that triggers the subjective phenomena necessary (like a sensation of desire) for maintaining this internal fantasy over the external object.

There is a claim to be made here that signification or meaning generation in language is then one of the most material processes humans can perform. As Žižek points out, “every language is embedded in a particular lifeworld, traversed by its traces: language is not a neutral transcendental frame that structures our approach to reality, it is fully penetrated/distorted by contingent historical forces, antagonisms, desires, which forever twist and pervert its purity” (42). Meaning is never exact or isolated but in this sense always-already determined by both the material elements a signifier sticks to and how this signifier is utilized by individuals throughout its history. Here it is extremely useful to recall Sara Ahmed’s discussion of affective economies in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Ahmed describes how “emotions can move through the movement or circulation of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension” (11). In experiencing a certain emotion, Ahmed argues, the subject is faced with the history of the object in question, and it is this history of fear, or disgust, or desire, that ‘sticks’ to an object and provides an affective cue to the subject who responds. My only challenge to this is that when discussing affect or emotion, is it not rather that meaning becomes saturated, and affect arrives as the subjective affirmation of this meaning and its instigation of these ‘sites of personal and social tension’ through the various antagonisms and desires it spawns? In any case, Ahmed is emphasizing the always-already determined aspect of our encounters with objects and how this external determination plays a large role in how we come to perceive things. Language in this sense is both an internal, mental operation and an external, material trace of matter’s history in human reality.

A substantialist or ‘authentic’ materialism is thus one that not only assumes the relation of signifying phenomena to an underlying matter but that signification is itself material, a consequence of the stickiness of signifiers and the very real appearance of the letter in physical reality. Embedding language in external reality is inherent with being a speaking subject, and it is not an individual venture but rather one informed by all of the subjective inflections that language has gathered before we come into it. In this way, all matter is ‘full’ in our point of contact with it: it’s particular material substance overflows with the traces of signification we collectively imbue it with and is further distorted by the subject who passes this signification through their own interpretative frame in the moment of an encounter. Lacan’s trick here is linking the letter, a physical but meaningless manifestation of language, to the material objects that the letter becomes attached to, in turn positioning language as the ‘sticky substance’ of reality that generates meaning in a seemingly external relation to the subject. We are not just using words to simply refer to objects, but rather placing these words within our virtual image of a particular object, registering it symbolically in the same moment that this registration is materialized in the external object that simultaneously determines and is determined by the symbolism stuck to it.

What I am getting at is that in order to reach an ’empty matter,’ we must acknowledge that the perception of reality we hold is determined through this material process of embedding significations in objects and others. This is not to say that all meaning is arbitrary and that language is a tool we can eventually warp into making ‘cat’ mean ‘dog’ and so on. What this acknowledgement means is that language as a material process and matter as linguistic expression are both founded in the subjective or ‘libidinal’ energy that one approaches the construction of symbolic reality with. The subject is not just the agent of their reality but the distortion within it that generates the meanings they become familiar with. In recognizing this, matter is not made ’empty’ in the sense that all meaning can be extricated, but rather in the sense that it becomes porous, its history revealed and opened up to the influences one can stick to it. It is in this way that meaning is not able to change, but shift. Consider the position of plastic straws in western society: 15 years ago, straws were symbols of convenience and capitalist enjoyment; today, straws are frequently banned by major corporations and municipal governments and are increasingly gaining the signification of ecological devastation and capitalist disregard. The materiality of language in this way provides a progressive method of raising awareness over the issue, and it is sticking these signifiers of a new, precarious reality to the very real matter that expresses them in our interpretations that allows for a glimmer of hope to shine through the fog of contemporary culture. If we cannot change the world, we can change how we speak about it.

Ahmed, Sarah. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd. ed., Routledge, 2015.

Lacan, Jacques. “Beyond the ‘Reality Principle.'” Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink, Norton, 2002, pp. 58-74.

Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels. MIT Press, 2017.

‘God is Unconscious,’ or Reality of the Signifier

This nightmarish universe – the Lacanian Real – is not ‘pure fantasy’ but, on the contrary, that which remains of reality after reality is deprived of its support of fantasy.

Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (2016).

“Laying the groundwork” is a common phrase one uses to introduce the ideas that make up the foundation of their thinking. Well, here’s some of my groundwork.

What is this highly individual but socially dictated experience that humans collectively call “reality?” Žižek’s notion of the concept in the quote above gets at an important point regarding our subjective relation to external matter and phenomena: at one end of what we term reality is the Lacanian Real – the raw, unfiltered and nonsensical data of pre-subjective externality. It is like encountering an advanced mathematical formula you have no context for (and there is a reason Lacan equates mathematics with the closest idea of the Real we can get at). The formula out of context is nonsensical, it holds absolutely no meaning for you until you begin to filter each piece through a framework of pre-established meaning. This letter stands in for a constant, this one for a force, this one a variable, etc. The key here is that the Real is not precursory, but, like a mathematical formula in relation to scientific phenomena, arises simultaneously with reality or the realm of symbolic interpretation as a means of explaining and distinguishing the very subjective act we perform in filtering this data. As Žižek points out, humans have a tendency to acknowledge the ‘known unknowns’ of reality – what we know we don’t yet know – but not the ‘unknown unknowns’ – what we don’t know and can’t possibly know that we don’t know it – that the Real stands in for. As soon as something does occur that is truly outside of our experience of reality (the common example for Žižek is a traumatic event such as being caught in a natural disaster), its incompatibility with our system of interpretation is just as quickly subsumed by this same system, broken up, and registered in language. The cliché ‘there are no words to describe it’ is in fact the very linguistic affirmation necessary that acknowledges the inclusion of the event in the symbolic register.

This is why Lacan states in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that “the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious” (59). In order to draw attention to the nonexistence of an ordering being that structures human existence and meaning, one must paradoxically acknowledge the pervasiveness of this withdrawn or absent structure in every aspect of reality as we perceive it. What Lacan will later deem the “master-signifier” (XX, 21) is the support given to reality via the unwitting human belief in an ordering structure, regardless of what form this structure takes. ‘God is unconscious’ points towards the idea that every experience a subject has, whether this is an act of purchasing, an interaction on the street, or the traumatic encounter with the Real, is mediated by or held up to a signifying principle that relates our actions and the meanings they produce to an over-arching ideological frame, or ‘support of fantasy,’ as Žižek describes it. Ideology and fantasy are in this way two sides of the same coin: purely virtual, idealized, and closely related to the Other (in the sense that our actions or desires are often held up to some imaginary standard or point of comparison, even if we become our own imaginary Other in that moment). The difference in terminology here is that ideology acts as fantasy externalized in the social sphere. Its function as a support of reality provides individuals with familiar social or ‘superego’ injunctions to act a certain way to others, or maintain a certain lifestyle and buying habits, and it is this “support” that, while often detrimental, nevertheless provides structure to our interpretation of external space as reality. The master-signifier of reality today is often heralded by Žižek to be capital or capitalism itself, and I find this hard to argue with when more often than not we find ourselves basing not only financial, but emotional, social, and familial decisions on the role of capital in one’s life.

What I am trying to explore here is how this ‘nightmarish universe’ of the Real, the ‘beyond’ of human comprehension and sensory interpretation, relates closely to the structure of fantasy while, as Žižek claims, not being ‘pure fantasy,’ and what this can mean for our precarious position in the Anthropocene. A good example for this is found in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), an early post-apocalyptic novel in which humanity is almost entirely wiped out by an aggressive epidemic. Near the end of the text, one of the few survivors left states that “we are left to mourn, and pine, and die. Yet even now we have our duties, which we must string ourselves to fulfill: the duty of bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief” (333). Here an acknowledgement is made of the very real circumstances of one’s reality: disasters are occurring, yes, and the possibility of death may also appear imminent. But another acknowledgement is made of the fact that one limits their potential to respond when this reality becomes a static interpretative frame unable to filter in radically unknown unknowns. ‘We have our duties’ becomes an affirmation of how subjects are capable of re-envisioning the support of fantasy we place reality up against, of extending or twisting the limits of the symbolic register ‘by force of love’ or the very generation of meaning we become capable of when we are thrust into language. Love in its most basic sense is providing meaning above the reality of a loved object, or providing the support of fantasy to reality. In Shelley’s world (as in ours) the Real is never encountered first-hand, but is experienced in different ways based on what symbolism a subject possesses as a means of interpreting it as their own reality. A shift occurs when this constellation of signifiers becomes one of ‘bestowing pleasures,’ that, despite the harrowing circumstances, provides the characters with a means of persevering and creating the potential for a new mode of existence on an altered Earth.

In this way, the duty of every subject in the Anthropocene must be to seek out this new set of signifying constellations in which to frame the current state of one’s reality, and in turn uncover new possibilities of action and reaction to the catastrophic events that we all face. There is no escaping the Real, but perhaps a new fantasy can make its appearance a bit easier, especially when the state of our future is itself becoming an increasingly unknown unknown.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques Alain-Miller, Norton, 1998.

—. Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore. Translated by Bruce Fink, edited by Jacques Alain-Miller. Norton, 1999.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. 1826. Edited by Anne McWhir, Broadview, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. Disparities. Bloomsbury, 2016.